Home » Uncategorized » Charles Tomlinson Griffes and “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan”

Charles Tomlinson Griffes and “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan”

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (September 17, 1884–April 8, 1920) was an American composer of music primarily for piano, chamber ensembles and voice. Born in Elmira, NY, on September 17, 1884, Griffes displayed an early interest in painting and drama. Recuperating from typhoid fever at age eleven, he grew fascinated with his sister Katharine’s practicing the European classics on the piano, and he set himself about to master the instrument. Katharine gave him his first piano lessons. At thirteen he began his studies with Mary Selena Broughton, a professor at Elmira College who remained his mentor and friend throughout his life. Griffes began writing for the piano as a child. His juvenile wowrks include short, Chopinesque pieces such as Four Preludes, a Mazuraka, and a set of Variations. After these early studies on piano and organ in his home town, Miss Broughton financed Griffes’s 1903 voyage to Berlin, Germany, where he studied for four years, including composition with Engelbert Humperdinck and Philipp Rufer, counterpoint with Wilhelm Klatte and Max Lowengard, and piano with Ernst Jedliczka and Gottfried Gaston, all at the Stern Conservatory. , composition with Engelbert Humperdinck and There he encountered such prominent artists such as Richard Strauss, Ferruccio Busoni, Isadora Duncan, and Enrico Caruso, and formed a close personal attachment to a fellow student and German nationalist-composer, Konrad Wölcke, who helped Griffes through the financially troubled times which followed his father’s death in 1905 and who encouraged his compositional gifts.

The piano music that Griffes wrote in Europe was greatly influenced by Wagner, Richard Strauss, Humperdinck, and the German Romantics. During this period he completed two large works for two pianos, worked on four unfinished piano sonatas, and composed a Symphonische Phantasie for orchestra.. However, burdened with support for his widowed mother and family, Griffes returned to America in 1907 to take a post as music instructor at the Hackley School for boys in Tarrytown, NY, a post which he held until his early death 13 years later. Griffes was frequently unhappy in his life as a schoolmaster, and with the advent of World War I’s anti-German feelings, Griffes felt himself cut adrift from his European friends and ties. He initially succeeded in getting G. Schirmer to publish his early German settings, though as his music became less conventional, his compositions were rejected by the music publishing establishment. Still unpublished and dating from c.1910 is a beguiling arrangement of the famous Baracarolle: Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour from The Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach, in the tradition of the Liszt lieder transcriptions. A Winter Landscape was composed around 1912. It is noble and dramatic in scope, and evocative of late Liszt and Wagner.

Griffes finally saw an upswing in his artistic fortunes beginning in 1914. In the remaining six years of his life, he produced his most important compositions, among them the White Peacock for piano (1915, orchestrated in 1919); The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (1912, revised in 1916 and published in 1917), an orchestral tone poem inspired by Coleridge’s fragment; his Piano Sonata (1917–18, revised 1919); his Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918-1919); and the unfinished Five Pieces for Piano. Griffes increased his recitals, expanded his contacts with prominent musicians of the day, and drew ever more appreciative notices from critics, culminating in the rapturous reception his Poem received on November 16, 1919, by the New York Symphony under the baton of Walter Damrosch and by the November 28th triumph of Kubla Khan with Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony. These unconditional successes were soon to turn bittersweet. The victim of lung and heart problems as well as overwork and emotional strain which took a toll on his health, he collapsed at Hackley in December 1919. Neither a sanitarium stay nor surgery on his lungs could cure him, and Griffes died of a combination of emphysema, influenza, and pneumonia, probably caused by physical and nervous exhaustion, at the age of 35 in New York City, NY, Hospital on April 8, 1920. At his death, he was working on a drama, Salut au Monde, based on texts of Walt Whitman.

One of the most important American composers at the beginning of the 20th century, Griffes is the most famous American representative of musical Impressionism and one of the first truly distinctive voices in American music. His unpublished Sho-jo (1917), a one-act pantomimic drama based on Japanese themes, is one of the earliest works by an American composer to show direct inspiration from the music of Japan. In addition, he also wrote numerous programmatic pieces for piano, chamber ensembles, and voice, such as his Oscar Wilde settings and the Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan. In 1919, just before he died, he was becoming established as one of the most gifted and creative American composers of his generation. He was hailed as a major force in American classical music by the likes of Stokowski, Monteux, and Prokofiev at the time of his premature death in 1920. In his last works, Griffes tended to use a more abstract and structured musical style whose language became deeply complex. His Three Preludes for piano, Griffes’ last completed work, clearly revealed this new turn in his music.

My collection includes the following works by Griffes:

Bacchanale (from Fantasy Pieces, op. 6, 1912/1919)/
Clouds (from Roman Sketches, 1916/1919).
The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, op. 8 (1912/1917).
Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1919).
Three Poems of Fiona McLeod (1918).
Three Tone Pictures (1915).
The White Peacock (from Roman Sketches, 1915/1919).


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